Friday, January 13, 2017

Leon Russell and the Shelter People

Leon died last year, one of so many musical stars of my generation. The loss of Bowie still feels raw; he was my inspiration in so many ways. Leon, on the other hand, was my first idol back in the early Seventies. His first, self-titled album was probably the first I ever bought, from a record shop downstairs in the Arndale Centre, Nelson, Lancashire. I'd be fifteen or so, I suppose. It was the photo that attracted me - I wanted to look like that. I did grow the hair and I've now got the beard. Sadly the two never really coexisted for me. Then, scanning the tracks, I saw 'Delta Lady' and realised that Leon had written it. I took it back to my grandma's house, where I was staying for the week. She didn't have a record player, so I had to wait to hear the album, Then - well, a lifelong fan was born.

So much for historical background. Leon Russell and the Shelter People was the second studio album. It wasn't second I bought. I suspect I got it later, in the mid-Seventies, perhaps while I was at university the first time round. I didn't take to it straightaway. 'The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen', the opening track on Side Two, was a disappointment. I loved everything to do with the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell collaboration, so naturally that is where I started. The other tracks on Side Two are variable. 'Sweet Emily' is typical of Leon's country drift. 'She smiles like a river' is a classic and Leon's gothic take on George Harrison's 'Beware of Darkness' is undiluted genius. The Dylan cover, 'It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry' ... well, it's not half an hour since I heard it and I've already forgotten everything about it.

The Dylan cover on Side One, 'A hard rain gonna fall', is the complete opposite, the best cover of that song ever for me, and I include Bryan Ferry in that assessment. In fact, all six songs on Side One are essential Leon listening: 'Stranger in a strange land', 'Of thee I sing', the Dylan, 'Crystal Closet Queen', 'Home sweet Oklahoma' and the magnificent 'Alcatraz', later covered, with considerable aplomb, by the now-forgotten Nazareth.

On the subject of Leon covers, let us not forget that this is the man who wrote 'Song for you', now referred to on TV talent shows as 'Donnie Hathaway's "Song for you"', covered by well over 100 other performers. This is the man who was a brick in Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, who was musical director on Harrison's concert for Bangladesh, who launched the second, 'Delany and Bonnie' phase of Eric Clapton's career and who collaborated with them all, from the Beatles and Stones to Elton John in 2010. In 1971, the year of Leon Russell and the Shelter People, he wasn't yet thirty but had already formed his own record label, Shelter - hence the title.

Yes, cry for Bowie as we all still do, but spare a warm thought for the creative force that was Leon.